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REVIEW: Macbeth at the RSC

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Christopher Ecclestone Photo: RSC
Christopher Ecclestone Photo: RSC

Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until 18th September, then Barbican, London until January 2019

IF ever there were a Macbeth for our time, the current production of the Scottish play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is it. Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of the murderous usurper high on machismo has uncomfortable parallels with global politics in the 21st century.

The fact that this is a Macbeth who is uncertain about his masculinity — and therefore has to keep demonstrating it — makes Eccleston’s characterisation of this tormented man chillingly familiar to us on a daily basis in the age of rolling news. (Who can forget Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” or recurring images of a muscular Vladimir Putin on horseback?)

In a recent interview, Eccleston said that Macbeth was “not least” an examination of masculinity. He said Macbeth was very insecure about his masculinity — “as I am, as most men, I hope, are”. And he said the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth was a portrait of one “curdling from love into co-dependency”.

The Lady Macbeth in this production — which is directed by Polly Findlay — is played by an extremely feminine Niamh Cusack (as if to display Macbeth’s masculinity even more emphatically). Her performance should be noted for her athleticism on stage as much as for her good diction. She is a commanding presence — but is she sufficiently malevolent?

Eccleston certainly exudes malevolence. He portrays Macbeth as a rough-hewn character who — despite his initial doubts about the regicide he is about to commit — has little trouble descending into the depravity of a tyrant once the deed has been done. He even has hard staring eyes that accentuate Macbeth’s evil mien. He sees Macbeth first and foremost as a soldier and not a man of aristocratic birth and manners. He therefore performs the role with a broad northern accent that makes no concessions to the nobility of the character’s rank.

There is no question about Eccleston’s abilities as an actor. He has a distinguished track record as a performer in television dramas and is convincing in whatever part he plays on the small screen. His rugged and forceful portrayal of Macbeth in Stratford is as compelling as one would expect from a man with his abilities.

However, there will be some who might find the northern accent irritating, especially those who have to strain their ears to grasp every word. (One of the problems with strong regional accents is that they can sound rather foreign to people from a different region — such as people in the Home Counties, for instance!)

There is also a general problem about clarity of speech on stage these days — by no means confined to the current production at the RST. How many actors today do what Richard Burton did in his youth — reciting Shakespeare in the Welsh hills so that when the time came he could bounce his voice off the back of a packed auditorium at the Old Vic?

Tuesday evening’s press night for this performance of Macbeth had a lot of school children in the audience, which was not surprising since the play is currently on the exam syllabus. As if to cater for their needs a key moment or phrase in the play, such as “what is done cannot be undone”, was highlighted above the stage. And it has to be said that whatever knit-picking points might be made by adults, the kids loved this production. It got rapturous applause when it ended.

Throughout time the three witches have been depicted in various forms — apparitions, supernatural forces, voluptuous women, or even as good old-fashioned crones with beaky noses. In this production they are played by a variety of young girls of primary school age. They are very good — with quite obvious acting abilities. But, delightful as they are, they hardly provoke bewilderment and awe — either in the characters on stage or the people in the audience.

It has to be said that Niamh Cusack’s performance as Lady Macbeth is excellent — notwithstanding the lack of any obvious streak of malevolence! — because she manages to switch from female fragility to strong-willed womanhood in the bat of an eyelid. She also glides around the stage with balletic aplomb. And again, her diction is superb.

Raphael Sowole plays the unfortunate role of Banquo to self-effacing effect, really springing into “life” as Banquo’s ghost. The ensuing disintegration of Macbeth at the sight of the blood-soaked “ghost” is brilliantly acted by Eccleston.

The main characters are well-supported by the other members of the cast, including David Acton as Duncan, Edward Bennett as Macduff and Luke Newberry as Malcolm.

In the programme for this play a writer wonders whether Macbeth is the first “horror movie”. It is certainly a thriller — of the highest quality. Any young person reading the play for the first time will guess when they’re half way through that Macbeth will eventually come to a sticky end. But how can that happen, when no man born of woman can harm Macbeth...?

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